Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

“Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley; flee to the hills, lest you be consumed.”
The Lord’s angels commanding Lot to leave the city of Sodom.
Genesis 19:17

 

It was a beautiful, sunny day-a welcome respite from a September of rain and hard frosts that had swollen the Sinnemahoning Creek and its tributary Freeman Run to unusually high levels. Not that anyone really cared. Nestled in a small valley just three and a half miles apart, the residents of the little towns of Austin and Costello at the southern tip of Potter County went about their usual Saturday business utterly unperturbed. Un­warranted complacency, historians would later say.

Isolated by geography yet fairly heavily industrialized, Austin and Costello were the proprietors of a colorful past. Nineteenth-century boom towns born of the lumber industry that stripped the virgin forests of Freeman Run Valley, at one time they were famous for their cheap saloons, games of chance, ubiquitous brothels, and manifest crime. They were a melting pot for every type of hustler trying to make a fast buck, and people came from as far away as Sweden and eastern Europe to try to earn a living there – legitimately or otherwise. Militant evangelists of the day likened Austin and Costello to the wicked Sodom and Gomorrah and energetically predicted a similar fate. Most people didn’t listen. Perhaps they should have.

Careful observers who held stock in such things pointed to an unhealthy rash of fires and floods that periodically ravaged the two towns as evidence that God was not pleased with what He saw there. During the late 1800’s numerous forest fires destroyed thousands of acres of thick, lush woodlands while smothering the little towns in dirty, yellow smoke. In 1890, forty-three businesses on Austin’s Main Street were burned to the ground, and in 1897 a third of the town’s residential area was incinerated.

In 1889 and, again, five years later, the Freeman Run Valley was decimated by torrential floods that cost local folks hundreds of thousands of dollars. The righteous interpreted all these disasters as God’s work and shook their heads fearfully as they prayed. Others simply went back to work while the rest blithely picked up where they left off and the drinking, gambling, and counterfeiting continued.

Life in Austin and Costello sobered up somewhat, however. as the rich forests of the Freeman Run Valley were eventually stripped bare and most of the lumber companies moved farther west. But unlike other boom towns which have enjoyed rollicking “golden ages” only to slip into oblivion, Austin and Costello were granted a reprieve: impressed by the amount of wood still remaining in the area, George C. Bayless, a paper manufacturer from Binghamton, New York, decided to build a paper mill in Austin. And eight years later, to put an end to chronic water shortages that plagued paper production during the hot summer months, the Bayless Pulp and Paper Company erected a magnificent darn on Freeman Run.

A mighty structure costing the considerable sum for the times of eighty-six thousand dollars, the dam was constructed of seventeen thousand cubic feet of concrete two miles above Austin. It was the marvel of the area.

It took most of 1909 to build, and when its largely Italian immigrant labor force had finished, the dam reached across the valley, solid and imposing. Five hundred thirty-four feet long by forty-three feet high, it was thirty-two feet thick at its base and reinforced from end to end with substantial iron bars. “That dam will stand when you are all dead!” boasted the structure’s confident head engineer when nervous locals occasionally worried about its strength.

His confidence, with that of most of Austin’s twenty-nine hundred souls, was misplaced. Two years later when more than one hundred people lay dead and the towns of Austin and Costello were piles of rubble and trash in the wake of stampeding flood waters, many wondered where this “expert” had erred.

In the autumnal warmth of September 30, 1911, numbers of people from Freeman Run Valley drove their cars and carriages up to the Bayless Pulp and Paper Company darn to see a curious sight. Thanks to the unusually heavy rainfall of that month the huge lake, backed up for three-quarters of a mile behind the darn, was so full that water was spilling down over the top. It was nothing to worry about, though, despite the memories of January, 1910, when, under similar pressure, the top of the dam bowed thirty-two inches and everybody left town to camp in the snow for a week in fear for his life. No, everyone kept insisting, the darn was good and solid. It would hold.

As the watchman whose duty it was to check the darn for any signs of weakness enjoyed a drive out to the lake with his wife that afternoon, retired railroad engineer Harry Davis and some friends were gazing upon the dam and the hundreds of acres of water behind it. Several days later he described what he saw: “It was a wondrous sight. There was nothing to indicate that the darn was about to give way, and someone had just remarked about its strength when with a sharp report a hole appeared in the west end.” In a minute, Davis recalled, that hole was twenty feet wide and extended from the top to the bottom of the darn. A wall of water fifty feet high was pouring into the abyss below when, a moment later. a much greater break opened up on the east side, and Austin and Costello were doomed.

The water careened toward Austin with a deafening thunder. As one survivor put it, “The coming of the water was accompanied by a roar like a dozen railway trains; but its advance was ten times quicker and its force gigantic.” The Wellsboro Gazette of October 5, 1911, called the incredible torrent “a veritable stone wall of death” as it crashed through the valley and, a few minutes later, down Austin’s Main Street.

“Carrying death on its debris covered crest,” as the Gazette so colorfully put it, two hundred million gallons of rampaging flood water inundated Austin, taking every­one by surprise. People in the crowded streets were swept away before they knew what was happening, and children playing in their yards were tossed into the air like dolls. Entire families were wiped out in an instant as the stampeding cataract shoved whole houses downstream, washing away cellars, foundations, and even sidewalks that timidly stood on its path. The Presbyterian Church was carried two miles down the valley intact before it came apart in a picnic grove. Wood from several mills ran down into the Susque­hanna River some forty miles away. The Wellsboro Gazette reported massive twenty-five-ton locomotives being rolled along the ground as if they were toys, and huge steel freight cars were powerfully bent in half. “I never imagined there could be such a force,” marveled one dazed resident.

Only one building in Austin made it through the deluge and the conflagrations that followed as brutal currents tore up natural-gas lines, which burst and caught fire almost immediately. Before the flood waters had even receded, flames were shooting twenty feet into the air and fast out of control, thanks to a strong wind which sent them leap-frogging over thoroughfares and alleys. “The streets became a glowing hell,” remarked one incredulous observer, “and there was no salvation for those who chanced to be near.”

Those who did get away often either escaped to the safety of the surrounding mountains or could thank bizarre circumstances for sparing their lives. One lucky girl, fifteen-year-old Madge Nelson, saw a mass of debris pushing a boxcar down the street and thought a train coming from the paper mill had jumped the track and was heading straight for her house. Terrified, she jumped into bed and buried her head under the pillow. When she finally crawled out into the open she found herself in bed, of course, but on the roof of the railroad station in the middle of a mill pond half a mile outside of town.

Yet, despite the miracles, the destruction of human life was tremendous. On one day after the flood, fifteen hundred men searched for bodies, some of which showed up three and four miles away. Some were never found at all. Meanwhile newspapers across the country spread the sad news. “TOWN SWEPT FLAT BY FLOOD – GREAT NEED FOR COFFINS” bemoaned the Buffalo Express.

Within a day, help started to arrive. First, a train full of food and supplies pulled in from Harrisburg along with a detachment of State troopers to maintain order and control looting, which, reportedly, was slight. By Monday, Secretary of Health Samuel Dixon was in town with a medical team, dealing with public health problems and injuries – the latter also being reportedly few, most cases having been brought immediately to Austin’s hospital which was safely above the high-water mark. The next night, Gov. John Tener arrived to survey the wreckage and suffering first-hand. And while the Pennsylvania Railroad was giving away free passes to those who wanted to get out of town, nine hun­dred men, mostly from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, were brought in at $1.75 a day to help clean up the mess. A month later Austin was still devastated almost beyond belief. Three months later the clean-up crews were still burying bodies.

The financial loss to Austin was tremendous. At least three lumber mills were completely destroyed, and the pulp mill along with fourteen million feet of lumber and three hundred residences had simply disappeared, according to newspaper reports. When the final bill was tallied damages were figured at anywhere between one and a half and six million dollars. And to make matters worse, more than half of the local merchants left town permanently.

And what about the little town of Costello and its four hundred citizens? Thanks to a quick-witted young man on a bicycle who saw the flood coming and rode back to town to warn his neighbors, all but three of Costello’s residents survived to rebuild their ravaged village.

Today Austin and Costello are sleepy little hamlets in what is still largely rural Potter County. No industry hums there any more and Freeman Run is again a small stream feeding into Sinnemahoning Creek. Only a broken concrete dam remains to remind the world what happened there on September 30, 1911, when, as The Engineering News put it, incompetent men built a structure unfit for its purpose. September 30, 1911 – the day, the righteous would say, Pennsylvania’s Sodom and Gomorrah faced their final reckoning with the Lord.

 

Larry Jablon is a public information writer for the Democratic Caucus in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.